Civil Defense: The Surge That Would Really Save Iraq

Kenneth M. Pollack

Iraq is not Vietnam, but the United States is in danger of recreating one of the most tragic elements of that earlier war. Then, we repeatedly fed new resources—manpower, money, political capital—into the war without changing our strategic approach until it was too late. The additional increments of soldiers and supplies allowed us to keep the war going but were never enough to produce the results we sought. The effect was what Daniel Ellsberg called “the Stalemate Machine”: a war effort that consumed tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives and billions of dollars without ever bringing us any closer to victory.

Even with the recent changes in the U.S. approach toward Iraq, we still risk recreating the Stalemate Machine. However, if the problem in Vietnam was that Washington kept piling on the resources to keep the war going without changing the strategy, in Iraq the danger is the opposite. We are finally shifting toward the right strategy and tactics, and we have a first-rate team in place (General David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker) to implement them. But we are not committing the resources, particularly on the civilian side, to give them a fighting chance of making a difference—especially considering how late in the day we have finally made this shift.

As Petraeus has repeatedly said, all that the military can do is create a secure “space” (both literal and figurative) in which political and economic efforts can start to take hold. What Iraqis desperately crave (and deserve) is to be able to live their lives safe from criminals, terrorists, and ethnic cleansing; to get jobs that enable them to put food on the table; to have access to clean water, adequate gasoline, and regular electricity; and to enjoy social and governmental structures that provide these things and fix problems when they arise. The soldiers can handle the first clause of that sentence; the rest can only be provided by civilians. And, while there are plenty of problems on the military side of the equation in Iraq, the problems on the civilian side are far worse.

If Washington fails to address these problems, the likely result is that the surge will fail, just as other efforts have failed—even those that employed the right military strategy, tactics, leadership, and resources. The best example is the operation at Tall Afar in 2005, where a superb military commander trained his regiment in the right tactics and mounted a textbook counterinsurgency/stability operation to secure the town. For six months, this approach paid off brilliantly. But, when it became clear that there would be no commensurate civilian effort to deal with the political, economic, and social problems of Tall Afar, the campaign broke down. Today, Tall Afar is little better than it was before the operation began. If the administration doesn’t take its lessons to heart, Iraq itself may suffer the same fate.

The first and most basic problem is that we simply do not have enough people with the kinds of skills to help the Iraqis rebuild their local economies and political systems. The brunt of this mission rests on the shoulders of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and Embedded Reconstruction Teams (ERTs). To their credit, the administration plans to triple the number of personnel on these teams from 150 to 450. But, for a population the size of Iraq, this is still a woefully inadequate number. As a rough comparison, in South Vietnam during the (successful, but tardy) Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program, the United States deployed 1,700 civilians for a population of about 18 million. That works out to one for every 10,500 people; by the same standard, Baghdad alone would require 566. Moreover, a great many civilians in Vietnam spoke some of the language and had spent time in the country beforehand, skills lacking in most of those we are now sending to man the PRTs and ERTs.

This shortage is not particularly surprising. The State Department recruits and trains men and women to serve as Foreign Service officers responsible for conducting diplomacy; they don’t have many people who know how to rebuild a power grid or maintain an irrigation system. Nor does the Department of Agriculture, for that matter. Its personnel do things like draw up regulations for the care and feeding of livestock and determine subsidy policies for certain crops—few, if any, actually know how to care for and feed livestock or how to rotate crops. Fewer still have any idea how to do those things in an underdeveloped, war-ravaged, Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern country. But, while it may be understandable, it is still a huge problem that the administration must fix quickly.

But the problem, alas, is even more complicated than that. If a new slew of civilians were to arrive in Iraq, they would still fall within a dysfunctional chain of command, where civilian and military bureaucratic cultures clash frequently. Asked to provide a civilian official to be part of a key military planning unit, a senior State Department official reportedly dismissed the request with the remark that “planning is what the military does, not what diplomats do.” Likewise, some military commanders in Iraq continue to see the civilian personnel they are paired with as being there to support the military mission; in fact, in counterinsurgency and stability operations, it is the military that should support the civilian efforts, not the other way around. The pressing need is for teams of civilians and military officers to be assigned to combined planning, assessment, and implementation cells that would coordinate these functions for both chains of command, thereby ensuring that, at some level, everyone is working from the same sheet of music.

In the past, both Washington and (especially) the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad have had a bad habit of micromanaging civilians. Personnel assigned to previous PRTs complain that the embassy tended to regard them as little more than reporting teams and assigned them irrelevant information-gathering tasks that were time-consuming enough to interfere with actual reconstruction. On other occasions, the embassy (or Washington) issued blanket rules that did not accord with the conditions in specific parts of the country and insisted that their field personnel conform to those guidelines. In the military, it is critical that the commander on the spot be given the latitude to immediately make decisions based on what he sees in front of him, and the same is true for the civilians waging the battle for Iraq. They, too, need to be able to do what they think best based on the circumstances as they find them.

One particularly meddlesome constraint has been a guideline effectively forbidding civilian personnel from venturing out beyond the Green Zone in Baghdad or military Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in the field. Iraq can be a deadly environment, and we must do everything we can to protect our people; but, if we are going to keep them penned up in the FOBs, we might as well bring them back to Washington. The only way to help Iraqis rebuild is by having civilian experts out in the towns and neighborhoods working with them. If the members of the PRTs and ERTs are going to have a greater impact as part of the surge than they had in the past, they have to be able to move around freely, meet with Iraqis, hear their concerns, oversee projects, make adjustments, and gain firsthand information and experience.

There are no easy solutions to any of the problems listed above, but the Bush administration has denied itself one method of potentially alleviating many of them by refusing to engage the international community, and the United Nations, in the process of reconstruction. The United Nations is hardly a perfect organization, but it has the ability to reach out to a range of actors that the U.S. government—and particularly the Bush administration—cannot. The United Nations has a number of agencies with some real competence in the basics of nation-building. In addition, it can call upon a vast array of NGOs that have the very skills and experience that so few Americans possess but that are so desperately needed.

Such changes would likely require a U.N. political framework for reconstruction, possibly headed by a U.N.authorized high commissioner (or some equivalent title), such as worked so successfully in Bosnia and East Timor. And that would mean sharing authority with the United Nations, a concession to which the U.N.-phobic Bush administration has seemed allergic since the fall of Baghdad. This could also be helpful in another way: A U.N.-authorized high commissioner could be empowered by the Security Council to override the wishes of the Iraqi government. It is for that reason that a number of high-ranking military officers have welcomed the idea—it would mean that it was someone else’s job to tell the Iraqi government that it cannot block elements of the surge that would threaten the militias.

Unfortunately, it seems increasingly apparent that, at some point, it will be necessary for someone to be in a position to block the actions of the government in Baghdad, whose warlord-masters already seem to understand that the surge is designed to break their control over the streets of Iraq. One of the worst of the Bush administration’s many mistakes in the early days of the occupation was the decision to prematurely hand back sovereignty to an Iraqi government dominated by thugs and thieves. This has created countless problems for Iraq, but the biggest obstacle it creates for the surge is this: Right now, most Iraqis look to militias, not the central government or the Americans, for security and basic services. The key to undermining the militias—and the insurgents—is to make it possible for the Iraqi people, most of whom dislike the insurgents and militias, to look to their own government for security and services.

But the Maliki government is dominated by militias, many of which inevitably will oppose U.S. efforts to marginalize them. Already, U.S. military units (and their ERTs) are being prevented from taking action in Najaf, Babil, and Maysan provinces because the coalition foolishly turned over control of those provinces to the militia-dominated central government. If the surge does begin to succeed, the militia leaders will become increasingly desperate and will doubtlessly use their control over the central government in Baghdad to try to bring it to a halt. And, when they do, the Bush administration is going to have a very serious problem either getting Baghdad to do the right thing or explaining why the United States must ignore the positions of a government it insists is sovereign.

Believe it or not, the Bush administration actually accepts all these diagnoses. What we don’t know is whether it’s gotten any better at fixing the problems it has identified. If not, then the new team, the extra troops, and the changes in strategy and tactics will do little more than prolong the stalemate. They may be just enough to keep Iraq from spiraling into unbridled mayhem and all-out ethnic cleansing, but they will not be enough to pull the country out of its nosedive and set it on a path toward sustainable stability, let alone eventual prosperity. And that means that, in January 2009, our new president will face the same awful set of choices that confronts us today. Only it will be worse, because, by then, we will have squandered more time, more money, more Iraqi and American lives, and probably our last chance to save Iraq.